This is the third in a series of three articles related to Invisible Bullying. We refer to it as invisible because it is happening virtually within 25 feet or less from adult supervision and it is going completely unrecognized because the supervisors are often on a completely different "wavelength" from the students they are supervising. Like the adults in the Charlie Brown specials, they are invisible to the students and speak a different language.
We refer to this as Decontextualized Supervision, and although it can prevent seriously bodily harm and make sure people get outside in a natural disaster and maintain general law and order, it does nothing to assist the victims of bullying during the school day. We spoke in Part I of the bullying that occurs in plain sight in the school hallways. Teachers, before you punish a child who is continually late to class automatically, will you please look at that child and ask yourself if this person looks like a person intent on beating the system or one who someone intends to beat on. If you are not sure, err on the side of caution and begin with the assumption that the child is purposely taking the long way to avoid hallway bullies that he or she dreads having to pass each day- because they are really lurking out there- even if you don't see them.
In the cafeteria, what do you surmise when a kid shows you his new Social Studies Book with a piece of pizza smooshed in the middle? If there are kids that always go to help the librarian instead of going to lunch, does anyone ask the child why?
More children than you would think dread walking in the hallways and going to the cafeteria because of the constant abuse. Yet, for us adults, most of the time we glance into the cafeterias or down the hallway, and everything looks fine to us, except for perhaps a little too much noise. Which group- the kids or the adults have a mistaken impression? Which group of people is out of touch with the realities of the situation? Which group is working with no contextual backdrop? As a supervisor of students, what skills have you developed beyond making comments like, "Keep it down you people, or else!" "If I have to come down there you aren't going to like it!"and, "I want the both of you to knock it off or you will be seeing me for detention for the next week!" When you said that last one, was it really an even battle, or might someone be the constant perpetrator?
So, we have spoken about the hallways and the cafeteria as being dreaded places for many young people. Next we will talk about the school bus, and this of course, includes getting on and off the school bus at the beginning of each day- another big reason for latenesses to school- an effort to avoid the gauntlet!
The law asserts that the school is responsible for each student who is transported to school from the time they leave their house in the morning till they return. That, of course, is ridiculous because we have enough to worry about in the building and since administrators are not really like the assistant principal in Ferris Bueller's Day Off- running all over town chasing people like idiots, to expect the school to police someone's street for the thugs that dwell there is very unrealistic. That being said, once again the bullies are at work at the bus stop in the morning terrorizing the weakest kids. Is anyone surprised that most new Elementary & Secondary schools are being built with pick-up lanes and older buildings have changed the traffic patterns in the parking lot for the cars of parents who drop off and pick up their children each day? 15 years ago, kids either walked to school or rode the bus, with very few parent pick-ups Overprotective? Tell it to the parents of children undergoing this terror every day. Additionally, even the students who are not bothered have learned early on to keep their mouths shut lest they be next on some bully's "Hit list".
An additional problem is that, in a school district where the population is sparse, there is only one bus run and all the schools in the district start and end at the same time. This means that your kindergarten child is on the bus every day with high school students, hearing all of the jokes, the verbal and physical abuse, and maybe even providing the bullies with additional easy targets for money, pencils, pens, markers, as well as abuse.
Another problem that nobody grasps is that almost all school districts, in an effort to contract out for everything including teachers, have done away with their busses and hired an independent contractor. The job of bus driver now is taken by someone happy to work part time and with no idea about discipline codes of the school and the disciplinary process. We recall one situation where a bus driver blared a radio the entire ride to and from school with religious music. Another driver curses and swears at the kids who are experts at getting an untrained adult to "take the bait" and lose their temper. In a school bus, people are hit, kicked, spat upon, verbally, assaulted, groped, propositioned, denied seats, their books and belongings are tampered with, they are tripped, the abuse folks, is endless. Occasionally you can see a story of a parent who, fed up with the school's process, takes matters into her own hands and enters the bus to confront the bullies. Attention you professionals- this is real stuff- we aren't making it up, and it is torture every day for children that nobody in the school ever hears about, and the driver cannot be expected to see since his or her eyes are on the road. Occasionally, an untrained bus driver will try to set up some kind of specific seating, and often they operate, like the supervisors in the school, with incomplete knowledge of who the culprits really are or they completely ignore the bullies in the hopes that nothing big will happen that day. The truth is, nothing actually noticeable ever happens when a adult watches, yet a girl could still be having lewd remarks about oral sex whispered in her ear, or a kid could be getting touched in some inappropriate way or having someone tamper with their violin, and no adult can see it and no one dares talk about it. The students law of Omerta- is even more iron clad than the Mafia.
I bet you think this is all exaggerated- I mean, really, it can't be that bad can it? After all, I work in an upper middle class place that fancies itself to be like a private school. Please, we implore you school people, make friends with the students who operate on the dark side. They will enlighten you as to the goings on in their world that you don't see even if you are looking in the right direction. Well-to-do students can be as cruel and heartless and, in our experience, often even more so than their less fortunate counterparts- and the parents of these children are much quicker to threaten bringing in the "dream team" of lawyers as opposed to working with the school to improve their child's behavior.
Now we switch to the classroom where one would think that law and order and the prevention of bullying would be the easiest to accomplish because there is a confined area with a teacher watching. Here are some examples of how children can be bullied in plain sight right in the classroom. I take you back to 1965. We are in the band room of a suburban high school where the morning rehearsal is taking place. A very overweight Japanese boy was the tuba player. At least twice a week, the bullies, of which the writer was at least an encouragement to the bullies would have him kicked out of band practice for passing gas out loud during the rehearsal. When the loud gas-passing sound occurred, everyone in the section would get up and walk away yelling, " Ugh, Benny (his nickname) that's disgusting", "I'm not sitting near him", "he's a pig", etc. This would happen during a pause in the playing and the band director's attention was diverted. The band director, ever the willing dupe, went for the frame up and would angrily toss Benny out of the rehearsal. The problem was, Benny was not passing gas- one of his tormentors was making the gas passing sound, and when it was made, everyone in the section joined in the collective disgust at "Benny" passing gas. In an assembly, when there was a lull in a speech being given by the principal about patriotism, this writer, seated halfway back in the middle of a row, got up to use the lavatory. A "friend" yelled out, "This is boring, I'm Leaving!!! Everyone in the auditorium immediately looked at me and I stood there trying to tell nobody in particular that it wasn't me who said that. I got detention for a week and worse, of course, since it was still the sixties, even more when I got home.
That is one kind of dilemma. Here's the next one. A student punches another student in class or pushes his books off the desk for example. The victim, tired of the constant abuse that has been going on every day decides to confront the bully. The teacher turns around from writing on the board, sees the victim standing up in front of the bully in a confrontational pose and immediately sends the victim to the office for his/her aggressive behavior. Do you know your students? After the first few days, any experienced teacher already knows, either by sight, or through the grapevine, which student requires constant scrutiny. When the bully is sitting there looking innocent and a non bully is striking an aggressive pose, do you think that might be a good time- or perhaps after class, to delve into the story with greater intellectual curiosity? The bullies, friends, know the precise moment to strike. As a teacher, do you pay attention to who is going to the lavatory and the time the person always goes? You are right, it's an impossibility for the most part. Know that abuse is occurring in the lavatory constantly. Creating a process which disturbs the process of the bullies is a good thing, but a teacher must be aware of the context. False equivalency where both parties are told essentially to "sit down and shut up- both of you!" is hurtful to the one who was not doing anything in the first place, but it does bring order, if not justice, to the classroom. Call some Moms and invite them in to sit with their child throughout the class. When the grapevine learns of what you did, most people will stop their devious actions because the shame of one's Mother sitting in class next to him or her will be a sufficient deterrent.
How about the locker room? How about students paying another student money to snap a picture of someone in the locker room changing clothes and having it go viral? Tampering with one's clothing and belongings, stealing, physical abuse, verbal abuse is occurring all the time in the locker room and the teacher is generally sitting in his or her office or waiting for the students in the gym. Yes, we realize that the school district refuses to hire anyone past a half day because then they have to give the person benefits, but if there is any place that needs constant watching it is the locker room. Do you have any idea how many students never dress for gym in the high school, choosing instead to take an F and then take Physical Education in summer school where they are required to, for example, walk around the building each day or swim, or go bowling?
Finally, you have all heard the adage, usually said in jest that, "You just can't find good help anymore!" Well that adage is true in the world of substitute teachers. Most schools cannot find enough trained teachers to serve as substitute teachers. We have seen substitutes actually sleeping in class and others who smell as though they have never showered. Most commonly, however, the substitute teacher seldom, if ever is actually certified in the area of the person he or she is replacing. Now you have a situation like this... A student who strikes another student is seen by the substitute teacher who asks, "What is your name young man?" "Joe Smith!" answers the student.
Bullies love substitute teachers because to begin with, they don't know anybody's name. Add to this the fact that the new teachers we see today are different than the old timers who saved up every day so when it came time to retire, the retiring teacher could collect full pay for a year or more. Today's teacher misses school for the slightest reason without any regard for 30 years from now. The result- infinitely more days with substitute teachers coming in when they can be found.
The week after Thanksgiving is Christmas shopping week, for example- don't look for a full staff in that week! When substitutes can't be found the regular staff is asked to watch the class during their duty free period or whole classes are sent to the auditorium where adults who would rather be somewhere else are assigned the task of watching the students during a duty-free period. Check the floor of the auditorium after a couple of mass coverage classes... that will give you some idea about the passion that the supervisor is bringing to the task at hand.
In summary we make these assertions and offer these admonitions.
- Most of the bullying that occurs in schools occurs in plain sight and goes unperceived by adults because the adults cannot conceive of such a thing happening in such a place. They approach their responsibility with no grasp of context. They are good at keeping the noise down. No justice can be expected here for the victims. The greatest plans by mental health professional and counselors are doomed to failure without a grasp by the adults of the world in which a student operates.
- There is no actual safe place in the school from a bully. The busier the place the better. Bullies need to experience some discomfort and disruption of their process. Be creative. Get Mom in there to walk next to Junior all day for starters. Machiavelli would have referred to this as a "Signal Example"- the effect of which is to deter future bullies- it's the reason that the law considers punitive or exemplary damages- to send a message to future would-be wrongdoers.
- Take a close look at students who frequently miss school, are late for school or class, never dress for gym, or never go to the cafeteria because they want to help a teacher. Do all of these people really look like trouble makers trying to beat the system thus deserving of letter- of- the- law school discipline or do they give off a different message?
- Have a meeting in August with all bus drivers to explain to them how the disciplinary process works so there might be a shred of consistency between this disparate group of individuals, most of whom think school discipline would be no problem if the administrators would just "kick a little more butt." Nobody told them that this kind of punishment is generally against the law- and educators do not make the law- politicians do- educators just try to carry out the law.
- Have incentives for teachers who do not miss any school days. At least they know the names of the students. The bullies hate that!
- Take the time to develop a working relationship with students who are usually on the wrong side of the discipline code. Many of them are dying to talk to an adult about what is going on but no one has ever taken the time. The police ALWAYS have their informants who operate under cover. Have incentives for these individuals too. The effect will be to disrupt the plans of the Bully. You will know, for example, when someone has brought a weapon to school. In one district, we excelled at this. Kids were always coming in early to tell us things. They became very caring too and would alert you if a certain student looked "strange" that day and could be on drugs, or drunk, for example.
We guarantee that you will be amazed at what you, the adult, did NOT know about what was really going on- even if it was hiding in plain sight. Bullying is never going to go away. Schools are a microcosm of the society we live in. How civil is that society these days? A look at the embarrassing behavior of our elected officials should provide you with some clue as to how fast bullying will disappear. Creativity, perseverance, and awareness are crucial to making any changes in the status quo- get some parents and kids on your side as well.